“Don’t you want to just jump into that screen and hug the shit out of your very own precious pink unicorn?” inquires Samuel L. Jackson. “Braid its hair? Sing it songs? Bake it cookies?” Yes, that Samuel L. Jackson. He is wearing a pink suit, pink glasses, and sparkly silver shoes, and his head is draped in strands of glitter he describes as “the magic hair of a unicorn long gone.” This transpires early in a belligerently whimsical new film called Unicorn Store that hit Netflix Friday, directed by and costarring Jackson’s true best friend Brie Larson. “... whew, am I inspired (thread),” raved the sentient Netflix Twitter account after a late-March screening. Verily, there’s a whole (inspirational) thread. Whew indeed, pal.
The word twee is not having much of a moment in 2019, and this is a blessing; like wasabi or napalm or internet slang, Unicorn Store’s uneasy brand of belligerent whimsy can be ruinous even in tiny quantities. Which is to say that as wayward Hollywood vanity projects go, this one definitely used the most glitter. “I feel like this film is like an abstract self-portrait of myself,” Larson told the Los Angeles Times shortly before the movie’s September 2017 debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. Given that it ends with—and this does not seem to qualify as a spoiler alert—her character delivering a tearful monologue to an actual unicorn, it could’ve probably used a little more abstraction.
Written by Samantha McIntyre, Unicorn Store first and foremost is a substantial Brie Larson flex, a byproduct of her dual coronation by Old Hollywood (she won a Best Actress Oscar for 2015’s notably whimsy-free Room) and New Hollywood (she is the titular star of March’s MCU blockbuster Captain Marvel and the likely deus ex machina of April’s doubtless even bigger MCU blockbuster Avengers: Endgame). Larson is a strikingly intense actress (21 Jump Street is still her best movie though) and, as her own Twitter account attests, an exceedingly earnest human, with very noble and necessary ideas about inclusion and empowerment that tend to manifest themselves in awkwardly explicit ways. (The climax of Captain Marvel, in another non-spoiler alert, involves her kicking rich amounts of ass to the strains of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.”) She doesn’t do subtext, is what I’m saying; don’t listen to snooty-ass critics who demand subtext, is what her directorial debut is saying.
Unicorn Store stars Larson as Kit, an aimless young woman drop-kicked out of a snooty old art school and deposited back in her parents’ basement, where her refusal to put away childish things—Care Bears, Pop-Tarts, glitter, unicorns—inspires great scorn. (“Kit, you are being weird on purpose,” scolds her mother, played by the great Joan Cusack, whose decades-long career oughta land her in the Weird on Purpose Hall of Fame.) She chugs wine, she hates kale, she stares blankly at TV infomercials that are meant to be wryly parodic, she tracks glitter all over the floor. At wit’s end, she takes a temp job at a PR firm that allows for some tonally perplexing sub–Office Space cubicle antics, with Being John Malkovich–style goofy dourness and desk-lamp lens flares and creepy-boss lecherousness.
Also, Kit is approached by a mysterious figure named the Salesman, who lures her to a downtown loft done up (unintentionally, probably) like the ballroom in The Shining and gives her an ice cream cone and offers her what she’s always wanted, which is a unicorn. The Salesman is, of course, Samuel L. Jackson, whose other major outfit is a turquoise suit with tulip accents, and whose IRL friendship with Larson, previously his dramatic foil in both Captain Marvel and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, has now reached the “dueting on ‘Shallow’ on late-night talk shows” phase. Their evolving comedic rapport, which is stilted in a bizarrely endearing way, was enough to redeem much of Captain Marvel’s rocky speechifying. Not so with Unicorn Store, which requires Jackson to uncork a sort of Muppet Babies–via-Tarantino rant that starts with him saying, “Has anyone ever told you you are a very selfish person?” and ends with him exclaiming, “Jeez Louise!”
Anyway, the Salesman offers to give Kit a unicorn if she builds a suitable unicorn habitat, which she does, after a fashion, with the help of a bemused hardware-store employee named Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), who inspires a great deal of even more stilted banter it took me several scenes to identify as flirtatious. Along the way, Kit coats a vacuum cleaner in glitter in a cringeworthy office-meeting scene that at least mercifully brings that subplot to a close, and cutely sticks Bugles (the food, not the musical instrument) on her fingers, and delivers lines like “This is not a vacuum for your house, this is a vacuum for your soul.” Also, “I specifically came here to work on our loving family energies.” Also, “Question for you: Am I pretty enough to be sexually harassed?”
This is all not quite a natural disaster in the Gotti/Snowman/Serenity vein, but even as a half-ironic Netflix selection, it falls well short of its Michel Gondry cartoon-surrealist aspirations, with a sickly sunshine that feels eternal even at 92 minutes. Larson has a winsome quirky-comedy energy, but can’t yet tell a joke either on camera or behind it; she has big ideas and societal aspirations that will quadruple in impact once her movies no longer insist on spelling them out in giant bubble letters that crowd out everything and everyone else onscreen, herself included. “The most grown-up thing you can do is fail at things you really care about,” Kit’s mom advises, and in the interest of encouraging some semblance of childlike delight even in adulthood, we’ll let that softball sail by.